Maybe it really does come down to simple things like compassion, empathy, patience -- qualities Erik Olson has in abundance, according to those who know him best. On any given weekend, you might find Olson, NRDC's new director of advocacy, working with his church's homeless ministry in Silver Spring, Maryland, cooking up meals at a Washington-area soup kitchen, or leading a discussion among his fellow congregants on the environment and theology. Olson applies this same hands-on approach to his professional life as he tackles complex public health and environmental problems. That's why you might bump into Olson far off the beaten path of Capitol Hill, quietly making his way around community gatherings in Worcester, Massachusetts, or perhaps a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, teaching citizen activists and local health and environmental officials how to protect their drinking water from pollutants, and listening to their particular problems and concerns.
Olson's first job upon graduating from the University of Virginia School of Law was as a lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency's drinking water program. He joined NRDC's public health program as an attorney in 1991, a position he held until this past spring, when he was called upon to direct the organization's advocacy campaigns. The goal: to influence the public, politicians, and business leaders on a range of issues from global warming and energy independence to the safety of our food and water.
Olson is one of the nation's top experts on drinking water safety, and his effort to remove lead from school water fountains typifies his approach: Success came after more than 10 years of dogged work, during which time he helped found and direct the Campaign for Safe and Affordable Drinking Water. This was a coalition of 300 diverse public interest groups, each with its own particular agenda, yet Olson managed to unite them around a single issue: clean water.
The experience taught Olson that when it comes to the health of neighbors and loved ones, people have a way of coming together. He discovered this again in New Orleans last fall, when he led a team of scientists and attorneys from NRDC to help local groups, including the Louisiana Environmental Action Network and the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, respond to Hurricane Katrina. The resources and political clout of national environmental groups are often seen as a boon to local activists, but parachuting in with a know-it-all attitude does little to kindle genuine hope in a community. So in New Orleans, Olson began to make calls to the storm-scattered leaders of the local groups, then brought them together for weekly conference calls. His ultimate goal was to devise cleanup plans for the area, but his colleague Al Huang, an environmental justice attorney in NRDC's New York office, remembers that during that first group call, what could have been a rather mundane discussion about logistics and strategy turned into something much more.
"This was the first time many of the group members had the chance to find out whether their friends and colleagues were okay," Huang recalls. "Erik let people tell their stories, and they respected that. From there, he was able to start setting goals."
As advocacy chief, Olson hopes to broaden NRDC's circle of friends even further, making local and state-based work a priority and consulting closely with religious leaders, minority group activists, farmers, and sportsmen alike. He plans to organize town hall-style meetings throughout the country, inviting people of all walks of life to gather and talk about how America's most pressing environ-mental issues are affecting them personally. "We're going to approach everyday folks to see how their goals overlap with ours," he says. "We need to harness the power of their voices so politicians and decision makers follow their lead."
-- Kiera Butler
Erik Olson is based in NRDC's Washington office.